Saturday, May 11, 2024

Unbound's Evolutionary Changes Further Distances Event From Its Roots

The routes and event details for this year's Unbound were announced Friday.
 Routes Announced Along With Other Details:

Life Time Events has announced its routes for the Unbound 200 and other satellite events which will occur the first weekend of June. 

Last year the event featured staggered start times for the Pro Men, Pro Women, and the "Amateur" participants. This year's events will also feature this with greater amounts of time between the Pro and Amateur classes.This year the splits will be Pro Women, or "Elites", as Unbound calls them, at five minutes past 6:00am when the Male "Elites" take off, but the Amateur class will leave at 6:30am. The extending of the cut-off time for the event was also done which is now 3:00am. 

Further separation of Pro (Elite) classes and the Amateurs will happen at the finish line as the Elites will have their own, separated "finishing chute" and the Amateurs their own "finishing chute". How that will look in practice is not yet known at this time. 

Finally, the event has a new director in Sean Thurman who takes the reins from Ben Sachs. Thurman will also oversee the Big Sugar event which Sachs was listed as race director of as well. There was no word on why the change was made. 

In a separate article posted on "Cycling Weekly" authored by Anne-Marije Rook, a subplot has developed that entails the Pro Women's field (or representatives of that field) who have asked Unbound to implement a no drafting rule for Elite riders, because the faster women most likely will intermingle with the slower Elite males. The fear is that an unfair advantage will be gained by some of the faster women latching on to drafting partners who are stronger athletes in the male field and pull away from the remaining females. This suggestion was rebuffed by the Unbound organizers for reasons of the drafting ban being unenforceable.

 NOTE: Large doses of "my opinion" will be handed out in gloppy dollops from this point onward. You've been forewarned.....

Comments: The event hasn't even been held yet and we have Pro Women disappointed and potential "gravel beef" within the Elite field. That's all I'll say concerning that for right now, but again - When big payouts and sponsorships are on the line, you are going to get this sort of complaint within the Pro field. This has to do with the females, but males wanting to be separated from the masses of amateur riders have now pretty much had their case addressed. So much for "lining up with the Pros" for being a reason to do Unbound.

The press release stated that this year's course will be only the third time the event has "ventured North". The presser stated that those previous North routes were done in 2019 and 2021. This could be construed as being correct under Life Time's ownership but it is definitely incorrect if Life Time is annexing the DK200's history, as they have done since they took over the event. 

In fact, we left going North in 2006. I remember Dan Hughes crashing out on Little Egypt Road back in the day, a road that is far North of Emporia in Western Wabaunsie County. In my memory, I want to say that Jim and Joel used to alternate going North or South every year. So the press release is either only referring to its history under Life Time, or it is incorrect information. UPDATE May21, 2024: I was made aware via a Facebook reply to a post about this that the reference to "North" in the press release refers to how the riders are facing and leaving the start line. So, this does not mean the event hasn't used a Northward course more than twice, although that is how the press release reads.

The change at the director's chair is curious. At the time of this writing, Ben Sach's Instagram still listed himself as the "Race Director" of Unbound and Big Sugar. What exactly caused the change is a curious mystery at this point. It is noteworthy that Sach's oversaw last year's highly controversial use of a stretch of muddy minimum maintenance road that had a workaround that was not utilized. This was highly criticized by Pro and amateur racers afterward. Whether this was a factor in the change at the race director's position is not known.

Further Separation: I have speculated all along that the Pro fields and the "amateur" fields would be separated and possibly end up having events on different days. This news of having more time gap between "Elites" and "Amateurs", (Don't you just get a feeling of "inclusiveness here?), gives the ideas I have written about concerning Pros vs Everyone Else more credence. No knock on Pro athletes, but all along I have stated that the goals of Pro Racing, both on the racer's part and the promoter's part, were at odds with grassroots gravel and where gravel sprouted up from and why gravel became the popular sport it has become. It surely did not reach the heights of popularity it has because we had Pro athletes vying for big money on a sanitized stage. It was quite the opposite of that, in fact. 

The fact that Unbound will now make "Amateurs" cross the finish line down a separate chute further shows how the organizers feel about what is more important. More stringent controls over traffic and pedestrian movements around the finish area will also be enforced to ensure a fair and safe atmosphere for the Pros. While this will undoubtedly benefit the amateurs as well, you can bet the Pro's concerns were the impetus for that change. 

Again, the evolution of this event has been front and center as the example why Pro and grassroots gravel are not compatible, or even the same thing. Should there be Pro racing on other than paved surfaces? Sure, why not? But that sort of event is not inclusive, it does not focus on stretching one's personal boundaries, nor is it a place where life-long friendships are forged through shared and equal challenges, courses, and all without any expectations for financial gain.  

Pro racing is not "gravel". Despite the surface the Pro's race on. Calling it such and trying to equate it with what gravel was all along is a false equivalency. I'll be interested in how Life Time further evolves Unbound and its other events, and also how traditional cycling media treats "grassroots gravel" going forward. My bet is that the picture will be the same as it ever was. Racing, in all its Pro glory, will be the only story they cover and grassroots gravel will appear to be invisible. 

I hope that more people become aware that this narrative is not the truth.


Michael Lemberger said...

The pros certainly have a right to pursue making a living in whatever reasonable way possible, but wow, am I glad I'm done with organized events of this type.

MG said...

I think you pretty much just elaborated on why I don’t need to go back to Unbound ever again. The best versions of the event weren’t called Unbound. They were a different event altogether, from what it seems. Gravel racing is evolving, that is true and unavoidable, but forgetting your own event’s history is a fatal flaw, IMHO.

I will absolutely keep supporting events I feel good about, but every new piece of news I hear from Emporia seems to push me away.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - I feel the same, Brother.

drkodos said...

People have tried asking the Unbound folks what is up with Ben's departure and they just simply not responding and have even taken to removing posts from social media of people asking for info

Been going to DK/Unbound for a long time now and this will likely be our last rodeo there as the changes over last few years (since Covid) have turned it into an unrecognizable mess

Guitar Ted said...

@drkodos - First of all, I am sorry that the event has soured you. It didn't have to be that way for the mass of people that made this event what it had become before Life Time took over. It would appear that the minimizing of the rider experience has accelerated since Life Time's ownership of this event has begun. More focus on the Pros has taken a toll on the aspects of this event that once made it the crown jewel of the gravel grinding experience.

Ben's departure being shrouded in mystery is not a good look for the event or for Life Time. Hopefully some transparency will appear to help clear up what is going on with that issue.

Caleb said...

Guitar Ted, what does "grassroots gravel" mean to you? What makes an event grassroots? Does racing or competition have a place at all in the grassroots scene?

I think that separation between racers and participants is unavoidable as long as an event is a "race" with timekeeping, placing, podiums, and prizes. If an event is framed as a competition, over time these issues will always arise.

How would resolve these problems if you were race director? What is your vision for Unbound? At a high level I can think of four options:

- Focus on racing: Follow Lifetime's approach. Have sensible separations the pro and amateur fields. Have a separate field for women. Modify the routes for the 100, 50, and 25 to avoid congestion and collisions at the finish.
- Preserve Unbound's legacy: Go back to the way it was last decade. Have a mass start event with no separated pro field and no separated womens field. Accept the chaos and congestion from different races merging at the finish. This probably isn't feasible at the current scale of Unbound. You would probably have to put a cap on attendance or eliminate some of the shorter distance events.
- Follow a hybrid race/ride format: Grinduro does this. Make Unbound a friendly ride with a few timed race segments. Everyone can ride and overcome the same challenges together, and those who want to compete can ride hard on the timed segments.
- Re-frame Unbound as a fondo, not a race: Remove the competitive element entirely. No prize money, no podiums. Make it clear that Unbound is an event to overcome a tough challenge together.

Guitar Ted said...

@Caleb - Thank you for your views and your questions. You provide a lot here to think about, so forgive me if I miss a few points in this comment. It may be better to answer this in another post, but here goes....

What does "grassroots gravel" mean to me? Does that actually matter? Only half joking here. My take is that there are so many gravel events that you should be able to find one that suits your proclivities (You mention several events later in your comments which perfectly illustrates this point) So, my advice is do not pay attention to what the popular media says who have the "loudest voices" Unbound is a "premier gravel event" because many believe that. You don't have to believe that at all. You also do not have to subscribe to my - or anyone else's definition of "grassroots gravel". This is one of the biggest reasons "Gravel™" became as big as it has become. It wasn't hamstrung by ONE governing oversight of what IT is. That said, we use that term "grassroots" to help define WHY you are participating in any given unpaved road event.

How would I resolve the problems if I were (the) race director? That is the wrong question. You should look up how I actually did things as a race director for 15 years. If you had - or have - any inkling why I did what I did, you wouldn't have asked me what you asked.

Ultimately things get messy when "competition" is for prizes, prestige, money, a way to make a living, and for sponsorship/backing. Gravel events, such as the DK200, were not built on any of those competitive ends. Was that event competitive? Absolutely! Competition exists for reasons. It is the nature of the reasons for the competition that are questionable here, not competition itself. The two things are not defined singularly. There can be - and are - many reasons to compete and many consequences for competing for certain reasons.

Joel Dyke, a co founder of the DK200, once told me that 'when the money comes into it, that's when the trouble will begin'. (I am paraphrasing his exact quote) He innately understood what would happen when the reasons for the competition were motivated by things like money and sponsorships. But when we follow the old ways of "making events professional" we get into a pickle when we try to mate that up with where Gravel came from, which in the beginnings were antithetical to "professional events".

I hope that helps answer your questions.

Caleb said...

Cool, thanks @Guitar Ted for your thoughtful reply. And sorry, I'm not familiar with your work as race director. 😅 I'm new to your blog and new to the gravel scene in general. I'll look up some of your past events 👍

Guitar Ted said...

@Caleb - Thank you. I was wondering if you were a "new-to-gravel" person. It is interesting to note that much of the debate concerning the origins of Gravel" and where some of the events have evolved to is partially in a phase where folks, such as yourself, are more and more unaware of the beginning of the story, so to speak.

Therefore; the frame of reference becomes what the narrative is in popular cycling culture/media, which is not a true picture, but many do not know that.

Consider that if you are a person between the ages of 25 - 30 years old, or younger, there is a high probability that you might think Gravel is Unbound/Belgian Waffle Ride/UCI Gravel World Series, etc. I get that because that is all that cycling media tends to give a voice to. This also could be true if you are an older cyclist, but only became aware of the Gravel scene after 2018 or so.

I have to be careful, because I have been a part of this since the beginnings, and I need to remember that my experience and frame of reference is not equal to many who are coming here to read the blog in 2024. So, I apologize if I have offended you in any way. That was not my intention at all.

Thanks again for your considered and level-headed replies. I am most grateful for that.

Caleb said...

Thanks @Guitar Ted, I was definitely not offended lol. I'm happy I found your blog because I enjoy learning about the roots and origin of the sport. And yeah you hit the nail on the head, I became aware of the gravel scene in 2019. 🤣 Unbound has been a goal of mine since then, and I'll be doing it for the first time this year.

Guitar Ted said...

@Caleb - All the best on your attempt!